Vayeitzei: Unrequited Love

Falling in love can lead to years of unhappiness.

Sometimes an infatuation is gradually replaced by a mature love, one with sincere affection and respect. But sometimes infatuated lovers remain desperate to own the objects of their affection.

When Jacob arrives at his uncle’s house in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”), he falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel. Rachel’s sister, Leah, falls in love with him. And both Jacob and Leah suffer for years.

Jacob

Jacob travels from his home in Beir-sheva to his uncle’s house in Charan on the orders of both of his parents. His mother, Rebecca, tells him to flee and stay in Charan until his brother, Esau, no longer wants to kill him. His father, Isaac, tells him to go and marry one of his cousins.1

He leaves without anything to give his uncle Lavan for a bride-price. Isaac would not have sent him off to find a wife without providing him with gold, silver, and pack animals. But Jacob, motivated by fear and guilt, rushes off on foot with nothing but his staff.2 (See my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures.)

Outside the city of Charan, Jacob meets some shepherds beside a well with a giant stone covering its mouth. When he asks why they do not water their flocks and move on, they reply that they are not able to move the stone by themselves, so they always wait until the other shepherds arrive. While they are talking, a girl approaches with a flock, and the men tell Jacob she is Rachel, one of Lavan’s daughters.

And it happened when Jacob saw Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughter, and his uncle Lavan’s flock: Jacob stepped forward and rolled the stone off the top of the mouth of the well, and he watered his uncle Lavan’s flock. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:10)

Jacob is so electrified by a close look at Rachel that he rolls off the stone by himself in a surge of superhuman energy.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rebecca, by William Dyce, 1853, detail

Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that was her father’s kinsman and Rebecca’s son. And she ran and told her father. (Genesis 29:11-12)

Lavan welcomes his nephew as a member of the family, and Jacob works for him like a son rather than a prospective son-in-law; after all, he has brought no bride-price. At the end of a month, Lavan asks Jacob:

“Is it because you are my kinsman that you serve me for nothing? Tell me what your wages shall be.” (Genesis 29:15)

Lavan sounds generous, but later he cheats his nephew twice in order to make him stay longer.3 I believe Lavan offers to pay Jacob wages only in order to make sure he does not find a job elsewhere. Jacob is unusually skilled at animal husbandry, and Lavan wants his flocks to continue increasing.4

And Lavan had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were soft, but Rachel—she had a beautiful shape and a beautiful appearance. Vaye-ehav, Jacob: Rachel. So he said: “I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” (Genesis 29:16-18)

vaye-ehav (וַיֶּאֳהַב) = and he loved, liked, was fond of, was charmed by. (A form of the verb ahav, אָהַב = loved.)

And Jacob served for Rachel seven years, and they were like a few days in his eyes, be-ahavato for her. (Genesis 29:20)

be-ahavato (בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ) = because of his love. (Another form of the verb ahav.)

Seven years is a long engagement, especially when the two people are living in the same house but are not allowed to share a bed. According to one line of commentary, Jacob had to wait seven years for Rachel to reach puberty.5 However, if Rachel were about eight years old, she would probably not be in charge of a whole flock. Furthermore, there are no indications in the book of Genesis that Jacob is a pedophile attracted to small children.

In see my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures I speculated that Jacob volunteers for such a long period of service because he feels guilty and unworthy. His choice of seven years of labor might also indicate that he sets an exaggerated value on the object of his infatuation.6

Then Jacob said to Lavan: “Bring my wife, because the time is completed, and I will come in to her.” And Lavan gathered all the people of the place, and he made a drinking-feast. And when it was evening, then he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him, and he came in to her. (Genesis 29:21-23)

Jacob was drunk; it was dark; Leah was wearing a veil.7

In the morning, Jacob protests that Lavan deceived him and gave him the wrong daughter. His uncle, and now his father-in-law, proposes:

“Complete this week [with Leah], and I will give you that one also for the service—if you serve with me another seven years.” (Genesis 29:27)

Jacob agrees, partly because he is guilty about deceiving his own father by pretending to be his brother Esau, and partly because he is still in love with Rachel.

And he came in to Rachel also, vaye-ehav Rachel even more than Leah. (Genesis 29:30)

He likes Leah, but he cannot be satisfied unless he also gets the woman he fell in love with. Therefore he spends fourteen years working for someone else without acquiring any wealth of his own.

Leah

Lavan masterminds Leah’s masquerade as Rachel on what was supposed to be the wedding night of Rachel and Jacob. But Leah does it, and Rachel either cooperates or is restrained from appearing at the critical moment.  It is possible that neither of them dares to disobey their father.  But Leah has another motive for her imposture: she is in love with Jacob.

We know this because when she names her first three sons, she explains each name in terms of her longing for Jacob to love her in return.

And Leah conceived and she bore a son, and she called his name Reuvein because “I said that God ra-ah my suffering, since now my husband will love me.” (Genesis 29:32)

ra-ah (רָאָה) = he saw.

Reuvein (רְאוּבֵן) = “Reuben” in English. Ra-u, רָאוּ = they saw (a form of the verb ra-ah) + bein, בֵּן = son.

Leah names her second son Shime-on,שִׁמְעוֹן (“Simeon” in English), claiming that God “heard” (shama,שָׁמַע) that she was hated. She names her third son Leivi, לֵוִי (“Levi” or “Levite” in English). Although the name Leivi is probably a loan-word for a religious functionary from the Minaeans in the southern Arabian peninsula, Leah assigns it a folk etymology as she hopes her husband “will become attached” (yilaveh, יִלָּוֶה) to her.

When her fourth son is born, Leah says “This time I will thank God,” and names him Yehudah, יְהוּדָה (“Judah” in English), referring to the verb yodeh, יוֹדֶה = “willthank, will praise”. Then she has to wait for another pregnancy, because Rachel decides to make Jacob stay away from Leah’s bed. We can deduce this from a scene in which Reuben brings his mother some mandrakes8 he found, and Rachel asks for them.

“But she [Leah] said to her: “Was it a trifle you took away my husband? And now to take also my son’s mandrakes!” And Rachel said: “All right, he can lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him, and she said to him: “To me you will come, because I paid your hire with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. (Genesis 30:15-16)

Leah wants her husband to fall in love with her, but she settles for sex. She has three more children, and retains her position as one of Jacob’s wives.

Rachel

The book of Genesis never says that Rachel loves Jacob, only that she blames him for her childlessness,9 and is so jealous of her sister’s fertility that she orders him to stay away from Leah’s bed. The besotted man obeys her. At her command, he also lies with her female slave, Bilhah, so that Rachel can adopt Bilhah’s children. Leah then uses her own female slave, Zilpah, for the same purpose. The competition between the two sisters continues until Rachel bears a child of her own, her son Joseph.


The three of them make peace only after Jacob has worked for Lavan for another six years—this time in order to build up his own flocks. Then, after twenty years of unhappy marriage, he takes both his wives out into a field and tells them that God wants him to leave Lavan and return to Canaan.

And Rachel and Leah answered, and they said to him: “Do we still have a portion of inheritance from our father’s house? … Now do everything that God said to you!” (Genesis 31:14, 16)

The two sisters stop competing. They choose to spend the rest of their lives with each other and their now-rich husband, rather than with their friends and relatives in Charan. The book of Genesis reports no further conflict among Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. At last, twenty years after the three of them met, they achieve a peaceful partnership.

May everyone who falls in love find contentment sooner than Jacob and his wives.


  1. Genesis 27:41-28:2. In the previous Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau out of his inheritance as the firstborn and then out of their father’s blessing.
  2. Genesis 32:11.
  3. Lavan cheats Jacob by replacing his bride in Genesis 29:23-27, and by removing his spotted goats and dark sheep from the flock in Genesis 30:30:27-36.
  4. Lavan recognizes Jacob’s skill in Genesis 30:27.
  5. E.g. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Tur HaArokh, circa 1300 C.E., translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Munk in www.sefaria.org.
  6. “Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that he considered Rachel worth more than the maximum servitude that a Hebrew servant serves with his master (Exodus 21,2).” (18th-century Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, Or Hachayim, translation in www.sefaria.org.)
  7. In Genesis 24:65, Rebecca puts on a veil before her wedding night with Isaac.
  8. The Hebrew word translated as “mandrakes” is dudaim (דוּדָאִים). Mandrake roots are hallucinogenic and narcotic, and are often forked like human legs. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translated dudaim as mandragoras.
  9. Genesis 30:1.

Chayei Sarah: Seizing the Moment, Part 2

A beautiful young woman named Rebecca goes to extraordinary lengths to marry a man in Canaan whom she has never met.

Abraham decides to arrange a marriage for Isaac, his son and heir, in last week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. He sends his senior servant, or steward, to find a bride in Charan, his old hometown in northern Mesopotamia. And he makes the steward (possibly Eliezer of Damascus, who was Abraham’s steward before Isaac was born)1 swear that he will not let Isaac leave Canaan; the bride must consent to moving where Isaac lives.

The steward arrives at the well outside the city, and asks God for a specific sign so he will know who is destined to be Isaac’s wife.

Rebecca and Eliezer, by Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

I explained in my post Chayei Sarah: Seizing the Moment, Part 1 why Rebecca must have overheard his prayer: he spoke out loud; she came out with her water jar before he finished; and she did everything he prayed for, saying the right words and even hauling water for ten camels. Yes, she was kind and had extraordinary strength and endurance, but she was also determined to be the bride the stranger was praying for.

And it was as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a gold nose-ring gold weighing half a shekel, and two bracelets for her wrists, ten gold shekels. (Genesis/Bereishit Genesis 24:22)

The only reason for a stranger to hand over such largesse would be as a down-payment on a bride-price. The steward asks Rebecca who her father is and whether there is room for him his men, and his camels to spend the night. She gives her lineage, so he knows she is a granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nachor, and says they have plenty of room. Then she runs into the city to tell her family. Soon her brother Lavan runs out to well with an invitation.

The steward and Lavan negotiate a marriage contract that evening.

In the Ancient Near East, marriage arrangements were made between families, with contracts specifying the bride-price provided by the groom’s family and the dowry provided by the bride’s family. Usually the negotiations were conducted by the fathers of the future couple. Abraham delegates this job to his steward.

But who negotiates for Rebecca? Her father, Betueil, speaks only once during the story:

And Lavan answered, and Betueil, and they said: “This thing went out from God; we cannot speak to you ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Here is Rebecca in front of you. Take her and go, and she will be a wife to the son of your master, as God has spoken.” (Genesis 24:50-51)

In Biblical Hebrew, “Lavan answered, and Betueil” means that Lavan spoke first, and his father, Betueil, chimed in. Apparently Lavan was acting as the man of the house.2 This is supported by two other details: that Lavan is the one who comes out to meet the steward and serves as the host, and that the next morning only Lavan and his mother speak.

Why does Rebecca want to marry Isaac?

She overhears that the stranger at the well is looking for a wife for someone named Isaac. She might suspect it is her cousin Isaac, whom she has never met. We know caravans brought news between Beir-sheva in Canaan and Charan in northern Mesopotamia; the Torah reports that after Abraham almost slaughtered Isaac as an offering to God, he received the news that his brother Nachor had eight children with his wife Milkah, and that the youngest one, Betueil, had a daughter named Rebecca.3

Similarly, travelers would have told Nachor’s family that Abraham and Sarah lived in Beir-sheva in Canaan, and had a son named Isaac. The news of Sarah’s death might not yet have reached Charan, but Rebecca would at least know she had a cousin Isaac who lived in Canaan.

However, the stranger at the well might be referring to a different Isaac. Then all Rebecca could deduce was that the prospective groom came from a wealthy family—so wealthy that it even owned camels—and that he lived far away, since the camels were thirsty.

Rebecca seems eager to marry someone who lives far away from her own home.

As a beautiful (and physically strong) adolescent from a wealthy family, she would have attracted many marriage proposals already. Yet she has not married anyone in the vicinity. Probably some of the prospective husbands were not wealthy enough to satisfy Lavan, who actually runs to the well to meet the stranger as soon as Rebecca reports back to her family wearing gold jewelry and talking about camels.

And Lavan ran outside to the man, to the spring.  And it was because he was seeing the nose-ring and the bracelets on his sister’s wrists, and because he heard the words of his sister Rebecca, saying: “Thus the man said to me.”  And he came up to the man, and hey! He was standing beside the camels at the spring. (Genesis 24:28-30)

Perhaps Lavan had previously tried to arrange marriages for Rebecca with a few especially wealthy neighbors, but she had found the prospective husbands so undesirable that she had refused to consent. (For example, the book of Ruth illustrates that most young women did not want to marry old men; Ruth was an exception.)4

By the time Rebecca overhears the steward at the well, she is eager to get out from under her brother’s thumb. And like many adolescents today who are fed up with their families, she longs to escape, and feels sure that a new life in a distant place would be an improvement.

The match between Rebecca and Isaac suits everyone. Abraham wants his son to marry someone from his old home town.5 His steward wants Isaac to marry someone who is kind, hospitable, and physically strong. Rebecca wants to marry someone who lives far away. And Lavan wants Rebecca to marry someone who is rich.

Abraham’s steward and Rebecca’s brother complete the marriage agreement that night. Rebecca’s dowry includes “girls” (female slaves) and her old wet-nurse (retained as a companion).6 And Abraham’s steward adds to his down-payment on the bride-price.

Then the servant brought out silver ornaments and gold ornaments and garments, and he gave them to Rebecca. And he gave precious gifts to her brother and her mother. (Genesis 24:53)

In the morning the steward politely asks permission to leave with Rebecca. Lavan and his mother demur.

And her brother said, and her mother [chimed in]: “Let the girl stay with us yamim or ten; afterward you may go.” (Genesis 24:55)

yamim (יָמִים) = days (literally); a long time, a year or more (idiomatically). (Plural of yom, יוֹם = day.)

According to the Talmud, Lavan and his mother requested a long engagement because it was the custom to give a bride who was going to leave home a year to prepare.7 However, the vagueness of their request implies a hidden motive. Alshich wrote that they were disappointed in their share of the bride-price, and suggested a long delay in order to irritate the steward. Perhaps they hoped he would either cancel the marriage contract, or give them more valuables.7

But the steward only insists that he and the young woman must leave immediately.

And they summoned Rebecca and they said to her: “Will you go with this man?” And she said: “I will.” (Genesis 24:58)

They depart that day. The story in Chayei Sarah ends:

And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rebecca and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac found consolation after [the death of] his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Rebecca’s determination paid off. She has a new life in a new place, with a man who loves her.


I admire the young Rebecca. I remember noticing several unexpected opportunities when I was young, and toying with the idea of seizing the moment and changing my life. But I was always too cautious to do it.

I wonder what would have happened if I has been as bold as Rebecca.


  1. Genesis 15:2.
  2. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), following Genesis Rabbah 60:12, wrote that Betueil wanted to prevent the marriage, so an angel from God killed him. 12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that Lavan was respected for his wisdom, so Betueil remained silent and let his son speak. Some modern commentators suggest that Betueil was ill or feeble. Others attribute the possible inconsistency to redaction from two different sources, one in which Betueil is still alive, and another in which he is already dead.
  3. Genesis 22:20-23.
  4. Ruth 3:10.
  5. Abraham might want Isaac to marry someone who worships the same God; see my post:
    Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.
  6. Genesis 24:61 and 24:59.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 57b.
  8. 16th-century rabbi Moshe Alshich, quoted in www.sefaria.org.

Chayei Sarah: Seizing the Moment, Part 1

How far would you go to make a good marriage? Rebecca goes a long way in terms of physical exertion as well as geography in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah.

Isaac and Rebecca, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

When the story of the arranged marriage between Isaac and Rebecca begins, Isaac is 40 years old, has never married, and lives with his flocks in the Negev desert near a spring called Beir Lachai Roi.1 His mother, Sarah, is dead, and his father, Abraham, lives at an oasis farther north in the Negev called Beir-sheva.2 Father and son parted ways on a hilltop a three-day journey from Beir-sheva, after Abraham held a knife to Isaac’s throat and nearly slaughtered him as a sacrificial offering.3 The Torah reports no communication between father and son since that time (nor any further communication between Abraham and God). Isaac does not even come to his mother’s funeral at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion,4 so presumably he received no message about it.

Sometime after Sarah’s death, Abraham decides to arrange a marriage for Isaac. After all, God had promised him descendants through Isaac who would one day rule the land of Canaan. Abraham does not consult with his estranged son. He puts the arrangements in the hands of his “senior servant” or steward—after making him swear an oath that he will fetch a wife for Isaac from his old home, the Aramaean city where Abraham left his brother Nachor when God called him 65 years before. Abraham also makes his steward swear that he will not let Isaac leave Canaan to join his new wife in Aram.

Rebecca’s age is between puberty and 20 years old. She is a “beautiful virgin”5 living with her parents and her brother in the northern Mesopotamian city of Charan, called the “city of Nachor” in this week’s Torah portion6. She is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nachor.

“And if the woman will not come to follow you, then you will be cleared from this oath to me. Only do not bring my son back there!” (Genesis/Bereishit 24:8)

Domesticated camel in an Egyptian petroglyph circa 2200 BCE

The steward leaves with ten camels and some expensive gifts. The sight of ten camels would be impressive; this story is set in the period between 2000 and 1500 B.C.E., when camels were domesticated in Egypt, but were rare in Canaan and Mesopotamia.

After the steward has selected the prospective bride, we learn that he also brought along a few men under his command, men who would be necessary to handle the camels, serve as guards on the road, and support the general impression of a delegation from a wealthy and important chieftain.

When they arrive at Charan, the city of Nachor, the steward heads for the well outside the city wall.

And he made the camels kneel outside the city at the well of water, at evening time, the time when the women are drawing water. Vayomar: “God, God of my master Abraham, please make it happen for me today. Hey, I have stationed myself at the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are going out to draw water. Let it be the young woman to whom I say, “Please lower your jar and I will drink,” and she says, “Drink, and also I will water your camels”—let her be the one you have marked for your servant Isaac. And by that means I will know that you have done loyal-kindness to my master.” (Genesis 24:11-14)

vayomar (וַיֺּאמַר) or vayomer (וַיֺּאמֶר) = and he said, then he said. (Other forms of the verb amar (אָמַר) = “say” also appear in the above passage, since the sign that the steward asks God for is a specific conversation.)

A well outside a city’s walls was customarily used by both residents and travelers in the Ancient Near East. Women and older girls fetched water for their households. Shepherds filled adjacent water troughs for their flocks. And travelers stopped to fill their waterskins and water their riding and pack animals.

Mesopotamian Water Jar, circa 2200 BCE

And it happened he had not yet finished speaking, and hey! Rebecca went out … and her jar was on her shoulder. (Genesis 24:15)

A water jar was a large pottery vessel with stopper at the top.

And the servant ran to meet her, vayomer: “Let me sip, please, a little water from your jar.” Vatomer: “Drink, my lord,” and she quickly lowered her jar on her hand and let him drink. When she had finished letting him drink, vatomer: “Also for your camels I will draw water, until they finish drinking.” And she hurried and she emptied the jar into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water. And she drew water for all his camels. (Genesis 24:1ְ-20)

vatomer (וַתֹּאמֶר) = and she said, then she said. (Also a form of the verb amar.)

A camel drinks at least 25 gallons of water after a long journey, and Abraham’s steward has ten of them. Rebecca runs down the steps of the well and back up with a heavy jug of water at least a hundred times—a  heroic feat requiring great fortitude and determination. And she does it as fast as she can.

First by her speech, and then by her action, Rebecca does everything the steward had prayed for. He gives her a gold nose-ring and two heavy gold bracelets—her share of the bride price he will offer in marriage negotiations. He is confident that the young woman is indeed the bride God wants for Isaac. But he still asks her about her family, since Isaac should only marry someone who is his social equal.

Vayomer: “Whose daughter are you? Tell me, please, is there a place in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” Vatomer to him: “I am the daughter of Betueil son of Milkah, that she bore to Nachor,” vatomer to him: “Also, we have plenty of straw and fodder. Also a place to spend the night.” (Genesis 24:23-25)

Now the steward knows that Rebecca comes from the same illustrious family as Abraham, and that her branch of the family lives in a compound large enough to comfortably accommodate ten camels and several men as guests. She is fully qualified to become Isaac’s bride.

Why does Rebecca water the camels?

Rebecca could simply invite the steward’s men to fill the watering trough for the camels. Why does she undergo the arduous labor of doing it herself?

The story has not yet mentioned that the steward brought men with him. Conceivably, they might be around the other side of the well, satisfying their own thirst before they get to the camels, so Rebecca sees only the camels and the elderly steward in front of her. If she were kind and generous, and acted without thinking, she would rush to help the old man.

But in next week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Rebecca is an independent thinker who takes initiative to find out what is going on7, and who figures out schemes with multiple steps to achieve her goals8. Her behavior in middle age indicates she is a planner. As an adolescent, she would have acted impulsively only if she were overwhelmed by lust—which an elderly man would not be likely to provoke.

My theory is that Rebecca the planner does not let the steward’s men water their own camels because she has overheard most of the steward’s prayer, and she wants to be the bride marked for Isaac.

A close reading shows that Rebecca could have overheard the steward as she approached the well. Before he begins his prayer, the text says vayomar, indicating that he speaks out loud. Later, when he tells Rebecca’s brother Lavan what has happened to him so far, he says:

“I had not yet finished ledabeir el libi, and hey! Rebecca went out and a jar was on her shoulder …” (Genesis 24:45)

ledabeir el libi (לְדַבֵּר אֶל־לִבִּי) = speakingto my heart. Speaking or saying something to one’s heart is a biblical Hebrew idiom for thinking silently. (libi, לִבִּי = my heart; the seat of my consciousness, including thoughts and emotions.) 

Here the steward claims that he was praying silently. However, in that same speech to Lavan he alters a few other details about what happened. For one thing, he reports that his rich master, Abraham, said he would be released from his oath only if the prospective bride’s family refused to give her; but actually Abraham said he would be cleared if the woman herself did not consent to follow him back to Canaan.7 For another, he reports that after Rebecca watered the camels, he asked her whose daughter she was, and then gave her the gold nose ring and bracelets; but actually he gave her the gold jewelry before he asked her who her family was.8

Thus it is quite plausible that the steward delivered his request to God out loud, and Rebecca, who was already on her way to the well, overheard him. Then she seized the moment, and did whatever it took to get the marriage that the stranger had come to arrange.

But why is Rebecca so eager to marry a man named Isaac whom she has never met? Next week’s post will explore her motivation.


  1. Genesis 24:62. In Genesis 16:7-14, Beir Lachai Roi is located on the desert road between Beir-sheva and Shur, a town just east of Egypt.
  2. Genesis 22:19.
  3. Genesis 22:1-19. At the end of the story, “Abraham returned to his servants” at the foot of the hill. The Torah uses a singular verb for “returned”, which leaves Isaac alone on the hilltop in the land of Moriyah.
  4. Genesis 23:1-4.
  5. Genesis 24:16.
  6. Genesis 24:10.
  7. Compare Genesis 24:37-41 and Genesis 24:5-8.
  8. Compare Genesis 24:46-48 and Genesis 24:22-27.

Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Delegated Miracles

This week’s haftarah reading opens:

A woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha, saying: “Your servant, my husband, is dead, and you know that your servant was a fearer of God. And a creditor is coming to take my two children as slaves!” (2 Kings 4:1)

Although “your servant” is often used as a polite form of address in the Hebrew Bible, as in older English literature, this widow’s husband might well have been one of the prophet Elisha’s subordinates; he does head a company of disciples in a later story.1

The Prophet Elisha and the Widow with her Sons, by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1657

And Elisha said to her: “What can I do for you? Tell me, what is there in your house?” (2 Kings 6:2)

All she has is a small jug of oil, so Elisha makes a miracle in which the oil keeps coming while she pours it into one container after another, until every empty container she could borrow is full.

And she came and told the ish ha-elohim, and he said: “Go sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your children can live on the rest.” (2 Kings 4:7)

ish ha-elohim (אִישׁ הָאֱלֺהִים) = man of God.

The title ish ha-elohim or ish elohim appears 75 times in the Hebrew Bible. Usually it refers to a prophet—someone who delivers God’s warnings or verdicts to kings and crowds. Yet King David is called a man of God three times.2 David is not a prophet, but God treats him as a favorite and forgives him for his many moral transgressions.

The person called ish ha-elohim the most often is the prophet Elisha, with 28 references, all in the second book of Kings. He is not a model of morality, either; when a bunch of little boys make fun of his bald head, he curses them in the name of God, and two bears emerge from the woods and mangle 42 children.3

Is Elisha an ish ha-elohim only because he is a prophet? Or does that designation say something further about his relationship with God?


Elisha is the disciple of Elijah, another prophet who is often called a man of God. Like his mentor, Elisha despises the kings of Israel. He passes on God’s warnings and verdicts to them, but avoids seeing them in person as much as he can. Also like Elijah, he performs miracles for individual human beings in his spare time.4

Elisha initiates two more miracles in the second story in this week’s haftarah reading: a miraculous pregnancy and the resurrection of a dead boy.

The haftarah is paired with this week’s Torah portion from the book of Genesis, Vayeira, which also features the annunciation of a miraculous pregnancy. In Vayeira, three divine messengers (often called angels in English translations) disguised as men come to Abraham’s tent. He gives them generous hospitality. Before they get up from the meal Abraham serves them, one of the divine beings says:

“I will certainly return to you at the season of life, and hey! A son for Sarah, your wife!” (Genesis 18:10)

Sarah overhears, and laughs.  She knows that both she and Abraham are too old to have a baby.

Then God said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Can it be true I will bear a child, when I am old?’ Is anything too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the season of life, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:13-14)

In the haftarah an unnamed woman in the town of Shuneim offers Elisha even more generous hospitality than Abraham did for his visitors.

One day Elisha passed through Shuneim, and a wealthy woman was there, and she prevailed upon him to eat a meal. And it happened whenever he passed through, he turned aside there to eat a meal. And she said to her husband: “Hey, please! I know that the one who passes by regularly is a holy ish ha-elohim. Let us make, please, a small walled upper chamber [on our roof] and let us  put a bed and a table and a chair and a lampstand there, and it will be when he comes to us he can turn aside there.” One day he [Elisha] came there and he turned aside into the upper chamber and lay down there. And he said to Geichazi, his servant: “Call this Shuneimite woman.”  (2 Kings 4:8-11)

Elisha wants to repay the woman for her ongoing hospitality, but does not take the trouble to go downstairs and talk to her himself. Nor does he ever use her name. Elisha asks his servant to tell the woman that Elisha could use his influence with the king or the army commander on her behalf. She turns down the offer.

Then Geichazi said: “Actually, she has no son, and her husband is old.” (2 Kings 4:14)

Elisha tells his servant to call the woman up to his doorway.

And he said: “At this appointed time, at the season of life, you will be embracing a son.” And she said: “Don’t, my lord, man of God, don’t you lie to your maidservant!” (2 Kings 4:15-16)

Both Sarah in Genesis and the Shuneimite woman in 2 Kings are childless and have old husbands. They are certain that they cannot conceive. The annunciations they receive use some of the same words. But the speakers are different. Sarah hears the news from God’s voice, speaking through a manifestation that looks like a man but is actually divine. The Shuneimite woman hears the news from an actual human being, a man of God who somehow initiates miracles on his own.

Geichazi, not God, suggests that pregnancy would be a good reward for the Shuneimite. Then Elisha confidently predicts she will have a baby, without consulting God. And God cooperates.

And the woman conceived and she gave birth to a son at this appointed time, at the season of life, that Elisha had spoken of to her. (2 Kings 4:17)


The third miracle in this week’s haftarah occurs after the Shuneimite woman’s son goes out into the field with his father, and suddenly gets a piercing headache. A servant carries him back to the house, and at noon he dies on his mother’s lap. She carries him upstairs, lays him on the bed reserved for Elisha, and hurries off on a donkey without telling anyone what happened.

And she went on and she came to the ish ha-elohim at Mount Carmel. And when the ish ha-elohim saw her across the way, then he said to Geichazi, his servant: “Hey, the Shuneimite woman is over there! Now hurry, please, and call her and say to her: Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with your child?” (2 Kings 4:25-26)

Elisha still does not refer to the woman by her name, and he still uses his servant as an intermediary so he will not have to speak to her directly.

She tells Geichazi everything is fine, but when she reaches Elisha she seizes his feet. Geichazi steps forward to push her away, but Elisha stops him with the observation that this woman is in serious distress, and God has not told him why.

Then she said: “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Didn’t I say: Don’t you give me false hope?” (2 Kings 4:28)

At this, Elisha knows what happened. He gives his staff to Geichazi, and orders him to say nothing to anyone he meets along the way, and place the staff on the dead boy’s face. Elisha apparently believes that just as God keeps delegating the power of working miracles to him, he can delegate that power to Geichazi.

But the woman does not believe it. She insists on leading Elisha back to her house. When they meet Geichazi on his return trip, Geichazi informs them, “The boy has not awakened.”

Elisha’s Servant Geichazi, by by Bernhard Rode, 18th century

Elisha climbs up to the rooftop chamber, where the boy lies dead on Elisha’s bed.

And he entered, and he shut the door against the two of them, and he prayed to God. And he climbed up and he lay over the child, and he put his mouth on its mouth, and his eyes on its eyes, and his palms on its palms, and he bowed over it. And the flesh of the child became warm. (2 Kings 33-34)

Perhaps Elisha realizes that he is not in charge of his miracles. He cannot delegate his power to someone else. And he himself has worked miracles only because God has delegated that ability to him—so far. Humbled, Elisha prays to God this time before he tries to make another miracle. And then puts his whole self into it, mouth, eyes, palms, and body.


We cannot know why God decides to abet Elisha in his miracles. He may be a “man of God” in the same way as King David: God is charmed by something about him, and acts with favoritism.

Similarly, we cannot know why some people today seem to lead charmed lives in which miracles are commonplace, while others are more ethical yet struggle for every inch of progress. But the story of Elisha’s third miracle in this week’s haftarah is a warning that we should never overreach, or take our success for granted.


  1. 2 Kings 6:1-7, in which Elisha makes an axe head float.
  2. King David is called ish ha-elohim retroactively in Nehemiah 12:24 and 36:2, and in 2 Chronicles 8:14.
  3. 2 Kings 2:23-24.
  4. In 1 Kings 18:1-39, God merely tells Elijah to appear before King Ahab. On his own initiative, Elijah sets up a contest between the God of Israel and the Baal of Phoenicia, and God plays along by igniting a miraculous fire on Elijah’s altar. In 2 Kings 1:1-10, King Ahab’s son sends soldiers to arrest Elijah, but the man of God calls for fire to come down from heaven and consume the soldiers. Again God cooperates.

Lekh Lekha: First Encounter

Two people hear God’s voice for the first time in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”, God’s opening words). And the reactions of Abraham and Hagar to their first encounter with the divine are very different.

Abraham

God first speaks to Abraham1 at the start of this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha. There is no preliminary visual effect, just a voice.

And God said to Abraham: “Get yourself going from your land and from your home and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

The rewards for obedience are significant: descendants for the childless 75-year-old old man, a divine blessing (which usually means health and prosperity), and fame that will lead people to say “May you be blessed like Abraham”. So Abraham leaves Charan.

And Abraham took Sarah, his wife, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their personal property that they had acquired, and the persons that they had made [their own] in Charan. And they left to go to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:5)

Abraham obeys God without hesitation. But he makes his own decisions about who and what to take with him. He also decides his own route, heading southwest toward Canaan, rather than southeast toward his birthplace, Ur, or north into the mountains of the Hittites.

Fortunately, God confirms that Canaan is the right place after Abraham reaches the town of Shekhem.2

Abraham and God have many conversations in the book of Genesis, including one in next week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, in which Avram questions God’s plan to wipe out the entire population of Sodom and Gomorrah. He even tells God:

“Far be it from you to do a thing like this, to kill the tzadik with the wicked, [treating] tzadik and wicked the same! Far be it from you! The judge of all the earth would not do justice!” (Genesis 18:25)

Yet later in the portion Vayeira, Abraham fails to question God’s command to sacrifice his own innocent son Isaac.3 God issues that command as a “test”, and Abraham chooses blind obedience over standing up for justice. If God is testing Abraham’s sense of ethics, God learns that his protégé’s knowledge of good and evil comes into play only intermittently.

Sometimes, as at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham uses his own judgment. Sometimes he does not.

Hagar

The other person who hears God speak for the first time in this week’s portion is Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave.

Sarah, childless and post-menopausal, assigns her slave to Abraham in the hope that Hagar will produce a son for them by proxy. Once the slave is pregnant, her status in the household is ambiguous. Hagar treats Sarah with less respect, and Sarah reacts by oppressing and humiliating her. Hagar runs away.

And a messenger4 of God found her by a spring of water in the wilderness … and said: “Hagar, slave of Sarah, where did you come from and where are you going?” And she said: “I am running away from the presence of Sarah, my mistress.” (Genesis 16:7-8)

Hagar answers honestly about where she came from. But she does not say where she is going. Perhaps the messenger’s question makes her realize that she has no plan, and poor future prospects.

Hagar and the Angel, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Abraham can plan his journey from Charan to Canaan because he is the owner of a livestock business; he is accustomed to taking command and thinking out what to do. Hagar is only a slave, with no experience in making her own decisions.

And the messenger of God said to her: “Go back to your mistress and submit to oppression under her hand.” (Genesis 16:9)

We know that Hagar does not respond, because the next sentence begins with the messenger speaking to her again—a convention the Torah uses to indicate silence on the part of the one spoken to. Hagar does not want to return and submit to Sarah, but she is probably afraid to protest against the order.

And the messenger of God said to her: “Here you are, pregnant, and you will give birth to a son. And you shall call his name Yishmaeil, because God listened to your oppression.” (Genesis 16:11)

Yishmaeil (יִשְׁמָעֵאל) = God listens. Eil (אֵל) = God + yishma (יִשְׁמָע) = he listens. (Many English translations spell the name “Ishmael”.)

God’s messenger adds that Hagar’s son and his kinsmen will fight everyone else, and everyone else will fight them. This information is enough for Hagar. She herself may never escape slavery again, but God will ensure that her son is independent and has his own extended family of like-minded rebels. So she returns to Sarah.

But before Hagar leaves the spring, she says one more thing.

And she called out the name of God, the one who spoke to her. “You are Eil Roi!” Because, she said: “Have I not seen, even here, after [God] saw me?” (Genesis 16:13)

Eil Roi (אֵל רֺאִי) = God Who Sees Me. Eil (אֵל) = God + roi (רֺאִי) = is seeing me.

Hagar realizes that the messenger is just a device for God to speak through. God has listened to her and seen her! She has heard God, and seen one of God’s manifestations!

Like Abraham, Hagar makes a considered decision to obey God. Unlike Abraham, she is amazed and awed by her first encounter with God.

Awed, but not cowed. Hagar waits silently until God promises a reward she considers worth sacrificing herself for. And she is the only person in the Torah who assigns a name to God.


What happens the first time God speaks directly to a human being? It depends on the psychology of the individual. Abraham is a clever person accustomed to leadership. Hagar is a pawn who yearns for independence, and treasures her encounter with the divine.

Both of them are certain that they do indeed hear God’s voice, not the voice of a demon or some subconscious part of themselves. Throughout the Torah, everyone to whom God speaks knows that the speaker is God.

I have had a few liminal experiences in my life, but I have never heard God speaking to me, and I am glad. Now, in the twenty-first century, someone who claims to hear words directly from God might be evaluated for schizophrenia—or made the guru of a cult. Regardless of where the voice in your head comes from, the most important thing is what you do as a result of hearing it. Abraham takes practical action to emigrate with his whole household, expecting certain improvements in his life. Hagar accepts her fate as a slave, and also names and remembers her amazing encounter with the divine.


  1. At this point in the book of Genesis, Abraham is named Avram (אַבְרָם). Later in the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (Genesis 17:3-5), God changes his name to Avraham (אַבִרָהָם), which is written “Abraham” in traditional English translations.
  2. Genesis 12:7.
  3. Genesis 22:1-19.
  4. See my post Bereishit: How Many Gods? on messengers or “angels” of God.

Noach: Alienation

Humans are supposed to spread out over the whole earth; God makes that clear early in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. After creating humans, God tells them:

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over all the living things that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:28)

Perhaps God expects humans to be good stewards of God’s creation; after all, God makes humandkind “in God’s image.”1 But they fail. Nine generations later, in the time of Noah, God observes “that the evil of humankind is abundant on the earth” (Genesis 6:5) and “the earth is filled with violence because of them …” (Genesis 6:13)

So God floods the whole world in this week’s Torah portion, Noach2, and life begins over again with the passenger’s on Noah’s ark, including his three sons and their wives.

Noah’s Ark, by Edward Hicks, 1846

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)

All bird and land animals will fear humankind, God adds. And the rules have changed: now humans are allowed to kill and eat other animals, but anyone who kills a human being must be killed in turn.

“Whoever sheds the blood of humankind,

by humankind his blood must be shed,

Because in the image of God

[God] made humankind.

And you must be fruitful and multiply. Swarm over the earth and multiply on it!” (Genesis 9:6-7)

In other words, it is a sin or crime to kill a fellow human being, because we all have some divine characteristics. And God still wants humans to fill up the earth.

Noah’s descendants do multiply, and eventually they scatter. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren become the ancestors of people who establish separate countries all over the Ancient Near East, including Canaan, Egypt, Kush, Akkad, Aram, and Bavel—the Hebrew name for “Babylon” in English. But then they modify God’s prohibition against killing fellow human beings. The separate ethnic groups become alienated from each other and make war in order to seize their neighbors’ lands. Later in the Torah, killing in battle is not considered murder.

However, this week’s Torah portion describes a brief period when all human beings cooperate and live together in harmony. This occurs when Noah’s descendants move away from the ark and settle together in Shinar, a biblical name for the Mesopotamian valley of the lower Tigris and Euphrates.

Everyone on earth had one language and one set of words. And it was as they journeyed from the east that they found a broad valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled sham. (Genesis 11:1-2)

sham (שָׁם) = there.

If only some of the humans had stayed in Shinar and the rest had journeyed on, God might have been satisfied. But all the humans on earth settle there, and began making bricks.

And they said: Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a sheim, lest we be scattered  over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:4)

sheim (שֵׁם) = name, fame, reputation. (Also the name of Noah’s oldest son, from whom Abraham is descended.)

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Breugel the Elder, 1563

These people do not want to scatter over the earth. Since no dissent is reported, we can assume that they are a functional social group and they prefer to stay together. They probably have leaders, but not a king. (In Genesis 10:8-10 one of Noah’s descendants, Nimrod, is called a mighty hunter and the king of Shinar when its chief cities were Bavel, Erekh, Akkad, and Kalneih. But this seems to refer to a later period of history than the time when people build the first city after the Flood.)3

Noah’s early descendants succeed in building a city and a tall tower, activities that, in the absence of a king with a police force, require a high level of willing cooperation.4 A city makes it easy for people to engage in more activities together, take advantage of a greater division of labor, and get help in emergencies, but the reason for building a tower is not as obvious. Three reasons commentators have proposed are:

  1. Noah’s early descendants are afraid that God will decide to wipe out the human race again. Instead of preventing divine destruction by obeying all of God’s wishes, these people build a watchtower so they can see their enemy, God, approaching and take steps.5
  2. They build the tower all the way up to the heavens in order to wage war against God there, with the help of an idol they plan to place at the top.6
  3. The tower is merely a landmark that shepherds can see from far away, so they can easily guide their flocks home.7

All three reasons confirm the unity of the people. So why are they worried about being “scattered  over the face of the whole earth” when they are so good at living together? The only reason must be that they know scattering is God’s agenda.

And why do they believe that making themselves a sheim will keep them together?

In Biblical Hebrew, sheim means “name”, “fame”, or “reputation”. Since they are the only human beings in the world, they do not need a name for themselves beyond “human”.8 And while certain individuals might become famous, the people as a whole cannot do so because there is no other group of beings to compare themselves with—except perhaps gods or angels. (See my post Bereishit: How Many Gods).

Then does sheim mean reputation? The people as a whole might want to establish a good reputation with God so that God would forgive them for not scattering over the earth. Did they hope that building the city with the tower would impress God?

Maybe what they really want is a sham rather than a sheim. Although the two words do not share a root verb, their spelling is identical in a Torah scroll: שם. For more than two thousand years, Torah scrolls have had no vowel pointing. The vowel points that distinguish sheim (שֵׁם) from sham (שָׁם) in books were only added when the Masoretes codified the Hebrew Bible during the 7th to 12th centuries C.E.

Maybe in the original oral version, a few thousand years ago, the humans said:

Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves sham (“there”), lest we be scattered  over the face of the whole earth.

All the humans in the world cooperate to make themselves a place in the world, their home.

They cooperate with each other, but not with God.

And God went down to look at the city and the tower that the children of the human had built. And God said: “Hey!  One people and one language for all of them, and this is how they have begun to act? So now nothing that they plan to do will be impossible! Come, let us go down there and let us scramble their language, so that a man cannot understand the language of his neighbor.”9 (Genesis 11:6-7)

The best way to make the collaborative, cooperative people scatter is to turn them into strangers, aliens who cannot even understand each other. Then they will no longer want to work together.

Then God scattered them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  Therefore He called its name Bavel, because there God scrambled the language of all the earth, and from there God scattered them over all the surface of the earth.10 (Genesis 11:8-9)


What if it were true that if all humans on earth could understand each other, nothing we planned to do would be impossible?

Would we stop killing each other? Would we finally become good stewards of the earth?


  1. Genesis 1:27.
  2. “Noah” in English is Noach (נֺחַ or נוֹחַ) in Hebrew. The word means “rest” or “resting place”.
  3. The Talmud, written in the 5th century C.E., long after the book of Genesis, claimed that Nimrod was king over the people who built the Tower of Babel (Talmud Bavli, Chullin 89a).
  4. The popular myth that the builders of the Tower of Babel valued a brick above a human life appears in Sefer HaYashar, Genesis, Noach 14 (first published in 1625).
  5. E.g. 14th-century Rabbeinu Bachya, 17th-century Siftei Chakhamim.
  6. E.g. Midrash Tanchuma, written no later than 800 C.E., Siftei Chakhamim.
  7. E.g. Radak (12-13th-century rabbi David Kimchi), Rabbeinu Bachya.
  8. adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.  
  9. For commentary on why God suddenly switches to the first person plural, “us”, see last week’s post: Bereishit: How Many Gods?
  10. This folk etymology connects the name of the city and region of Bavel (בָּבֶל) with the verb for “scramble”, balal (בָּלַל). However, the name Bavel probably comes from the Sumerian place-name Babilim, which meant “Gate of God”.

Bereishit: How Many Gods?

Question: How many gods does it take to create humankind?

The whole universe is created in six days at the beginning of the first book and first Torah portion of the bible, both called Bereishit (“In a beginning”). God announces what will exist, and then it does. Here is the first act of creation:

The First Day of Creation, Nuremburg Chronicle, 1493

Vayomer Elohim: “Let light be! And light was.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3)

vayomer elohim (ובַיֺּאמֶר אֱלוֹהִים) = And God said. (vayomer (וַיֺּאמֶר) = and he said + elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; multiple gods.

Grammatically, elohim is the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהָּ = a god.1 But the plural elohim is also used to refer to the God, the one with the four-letter personal name abbreviated Y-H-V-H.2

We know that only one God speaks light into being, because vayomer is singular—“he said”, not “they said”.  (In the Torah the God is referred to by the default gender: male.) Hebrew has no capital letters, but I capitalize elohim in this essay when it is clear that the word means “God” rather than “gods”.

The words Vayomer Elohim precede each new creation in the first story of Genesis.3 On the sixth day, God makes land animals of various kinds, and finally human beings. But the grammar of the sentence in which God initiates the creation of humans is peculiar.

Vayomer Elohim:“Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness. And they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over the big animals and over all the earth and over all the crawlers that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

The speaker is God in the singular. But what God says is “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness.”4

Us? Neither the kings nor the God speak with the royal “we” in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, God uses the first person plural only four times in that entire canon:

  • In Genesis 1:26 on the sixth day of creation (above).
  • In Isaiah 6:8 in a vision calling the first Isaiah to become a prophet.
  • In Genesis 3:22 regarding the Garden of Eden.
  • In Genesis 11:7 regarding the Tower of Babel.

Can we figure out whom God is addressing in Genesis 1:26 by examining the other three times God says “we”?

Angels?

Serafim were standing in attendance from above; each had six wings … And I heard the voice of my lord saying: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said: “Here I am. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:2, 6:8)

In “Whom shall I send?” God speaks in the first person singular. But in “And who will go for us?” God is probably including the serafim, six-winged fiery creatures who surround God in Isaiah’s vision. God addresses them because in this case God is looking for a human prophet, rather than an angel, to pass on God’s words to the people.

Seraf in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, mosaic ca. 1300

No serafim appear in the book of Genesis. However, medieval commentators proposed that God is addressing a different kind of angel in Genesis 1:26: a malakh. (Malakh, מַלְאַךְ = messenger, emissary. Plural malakhim, מַלְאָכִים.)5

A malakh sent by a human being is simply a man who delivers a message to another human. A malakh sent by God also delivers a message, but the human recipient perceives a voice, a fire, or something that at first looks like a man (without wings) but then vanishes dramatically.6 Every “angel” mentioned in Genesis through 2 Kings is called a malakh.

By the fifth century C.E., Talmudic rabbis considered malakhim not just mouthpieces, but half-human creatures with independent thoughts and feelings. Bereishit Rabbah 8 claims that God created the “ministering angels” (malakhei hashareit, מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת) before creating the universe. According to this text, angels and humans are similar in how they stand, speak, understand, and see; but only humans are also animals that eat, drink, bear children, excrete, and die.

11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, built on this idea when he explained Genesis 1:26. He wrote that the malakhim were created in God’s image before God created the universe. When God wanted to create another kind of being in God’s image, God included the malakhim in the decision as a tactful way to prevent them from feeling envious. Perhaps these angles might be jealous of humankind’s animal functions. Alternatively, angels might envy humans because right after God creates them, God tells them to rule over the earth and all its animals.7

This fanciful characterization of malakhim is entirely absent from the Hebrew Bible, where a malakh is not an independent person with feelings, but only a mouthpiece God that uses and discards, like a marionette. Sometimes in the Torah a malakh speaks to a human, and then with no transition the next sentence is from God in the first person singular.8

A malakh in the Torah has no will of its own and cannot create something. When God says “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness,” God is addressing fellow creators—creators who can collectively make a new kind of animal. Thus in the context of the book of Genesis, God is not addressing any angels.

Moral immortals?

Does that mean God is addressing other gods in Genesis 1:26?

The second time in the book of Genesis that God uses the first person plural occurs after the two humans in the Garden of Eden eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God says:

“Humankind is becoming like one of us, knowing good and evil!  And now, lest it stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—!” And Y-H-V-H Elohim sent it away from the Garden of Eden … (Genesis 3:22-23)

Here, “us” includes fellow beings who are aware of good and evil. These beings must also be immortal, or they would not be alarmed by the idea of humans living forever. The only other information about them in this week’s Torah portion comes from the snake in the Garden of Eden, who tells Eve:

“Because Elohim knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like elohim, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)

The second elohim in this sentence could refer to either the one God, or to gods in general. Most English translations use a plural such as “divine beings” for the second Elohim. It makes sense, and not just because God says “one of us later in the story. After all, what is a moral immortal? Not an angel; before the later prophets, biblical angels appear to be amoral and transient manifestations.

But the bible does contain other passages assuming the existence of multiple gods. Lesser gods appear in Genesis 6:2-4 at the of this week’s Torah portion (where the “sons of the elohim”impregnate the “daughters of humankind”). There are also references to a court of gods who acknowledge the God of Israel as their king in Exodus 15:11, Job 1:6-2:7, and Psalms 29, 82, and 97.

Alienators?

The remaining sentence in the Hebrew Bible in which God speaks in the first person plural appears in the Tower of Babel story in next week’s Torah portion, Noach:

Vayomer Y-H-V-H: “Hey, one people and one language for all of them, and this is how they have begun to act! So now nothing that they plan to do will be impossible! Come, let us go down there and let us make their language fail, so that a man cannot understand the language of his neighbor.” (Genesis 11:6-7)

Here God’s “us” includes fellow beings who can separate collaborators and turn them into strangers, aliens who cannot even understand each other. These beings cannot be malakhim, who only repeat God’s words. Nor can they be human beings, since all the humans on earth are building the Tower of Babel together. Therefore the obfuscators can only be subsidiary gods, gods that have power to move people to different locations and change their ways of thinking. (I will discuss this further in next week’s blog post, Noach: Alienation.)


Why do lesser gods make several fleeting appearances in the book of Genesis, which otherwise posits a single god powerful enough to create the heavens and the earth? Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7 might be remnants of other ancient stories—polytheistic tales about  a chief creator god with lesser gods to assist him. This could also explain the perfunctory story in Genesis 6:2-4 about how the “sons of elohim” took human wives who bore them children who became legendary heroes. The scribes who wrote down the book of Genesis may have been inspired, but they were only human. There are many rough spots in the Torah where different oral traditions were combined without being edited for consistency.9

Question: How many gods does it take to create a universe, invent humankind, set up the Garden of Eden, and turn human language into babble?

Answer: Only one, but that God makes the other gods that are hanging around feel included and empowered.

Apparently God is considerate of other gods.


  1. The first place in the Torah where the word elohim definitely refers to plural gods is Genesis 3:5 in the Garden of Eden story.
  2. See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God. God is referred to as elohim throughout Genesis chapter 1. The first use of God’s personal name, Y-H-V-H, occurs in Genesis 2:4.
  3. Genesis 1:3, 1:6, 1:9, 1:11, 1:14, 1:20, 1:24, 1:26.
  4. “Let us make” is na-aseh, נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה. The prefix נ indicates a first person plural verb. “In our image” is betzalmeinu, בְּצַלמֵנוּ, and “like our likeness” is kidmuteinu, כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ. In both nouns, the suffix einu (ֵנוּ  ) indicates the first person plural possessive, i.e. “our”.   
  5. The Septuagint (3rd century B.C.E.), the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, routinely translates the word malakh as “angelos”, whether the malakh in question is human or supernatural. Many English translations call a malakh from a human a messenger, but a malakh from God an “angel”.
  6. See my post Vayeira: Stopped by an Angel.
  7. Genesis 1:28.
  8. E.g. Genesis 22:11-2 and 22:15-18.
  9. Most modern scholars agree that the first creation story in Genesis, the one about the six days of creation and seventh day of rest, was written by a Levite who was deported to Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E. and was influenced by Babylonian theology. The Garden of Eden and Tower of Babel stories are attributed to a different author, whose century is still a matter of debate; but scholars agree that this author or redactor drew from more than one oral tradition.

Ecclesiastes and Sukkot: Nothing New

Do you celebrate this year’s harvest, and pray for the right weather to do it again next year—or  does the endless cycle of seasons make you tired? Do you rejoice over the good things in life, even though they do not last—or do you despair because nothing lasts?

Both of these approaches, the practical and the existential, are part of the week of Sukkot, called zeman simchateynu, the “time of our rejoicing”. This year, Sukkot will end at sunset on Sunday, October 16.

Sukkot was originally a celebration of the harvest of autumn fruits (grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives), then became one of the three annual pilgrimage-festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. After the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., the festival moved into people’s yards or streets, where they built fragile temporary shelters called sukkot (סוּכּוֹת) = huts, booths, temporary shelters (singular: sukkah). Traditionally, Jews spend part of each day of Sukkot inside their sukkot, conducting rituals to pray for enough rain for the coming year, and eating festive meals (unless it is already raining).1

“Sukkot Customs”, English woodcut, 1662

The biblical reading for Sukkot is the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. This book views all life as fragile and temporary, like a sukkah. But instead of celebrating that we are alive to see another season, Ecclesiastes questions whether our brief lives have any meaning.

In the well-known King James translation, Ecclesiastes begins: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The word “vanity” in this 17th-century translation refers to doing something in vain, i.e. with no resulting change. In the original Hebrew, the word is haveil.

The words of Kohelet2, a son of David, king in Jerusalem:

Haveil havalim, said Kohelet.

Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 1:1-2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), or hevel (הֶבֶל) =  (noun) puff of air, vapor; (adjective) impermanent, fleeting, futile, absurd.

havalim (הֲבָלִים) =plural of haveil. (In biblical Hebrew a singular noun followed by the same noun in the plural can be translated as “~ of ~s” (as in “holy of holies”, “king of kings”). This construction means “most ~”, “highest ~”, or “utterly ~”. Thus haveil havalim = utterly transitory, utterly futile, utterly absurd.)

Kohelet considers both gaining wisdom and gaining wealth. Both of these efforts yield temporary satisfaction. But he dismisses them as hevel because they cannot last.

Wisdom

Kohelet values wisdom as a tool in the search for the purpose of life. Yet he considers wisdom hevel because disappears over time.

And I said to myself: “The fate of the fool is also mine; then why have I been wise?” That was when I spoke in my heart and concluded that this too was havel. Because the wise man along with the fool is not remembered forever; as the days continue to pass, all of them are forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies along with the fool! (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16)

The wise man dies and his wisdom is forgotten. Presumably, after enough millennia have passed, the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes will also be lost!

Wealth

Since many people value wealth, Kohelet builds a large estate with gardens, slaves, treasures, and singers.

Garden of Eram, Shiraz

And I did not neglect anything that my eyes asked for, I did not restrain my heart in any enjoyment. Rather, my heart rejoiced in all the fruits of my labor—and that was the only thing I got out of all my labor. (Ecclesiastes 2:10)

The pleasure of creating and maintaining a luxurious estate is not enough to give life meaning. Kohelet adds that passing on your wealth to your heirs is useless, since sooner or later the inheritance will be controlled by a fool who does not care about what you achieved.3 Furthermore, no matter how much luxury you accumulate, you can’t take it with you.

As one goes out from his mother’s womb naked, he will return … He cannot carry the fruits of his labor in his hand. (Ecclesiastes 5:14)

Innovation

Wisdom and wealth are not the only things that people believe are worthwhile. Some people today say life is about doing good and giving to others; but Kohelet barely touches on that subject. Others find meaning in scientific discovery, invention, artistic creation, promoting new social structures, or increasing knowledge; but Kohelet is not impressed.

What profit is there for the human

            In all his labor

            That he labors under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:3)

He describes how the cycles of nature never change, then claims that human endeavors are also repetitious.

What will happen

Has happened before

And what is done

Has been done before.

And there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

There may be something of which it is said: “Look, this one is new!” But it occurred long ago, it happened before our time. There is no memory of the first ones, and also, like them, the later ones will not be remembered … (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11)

Thus Kohelet presents two reasons why human inventions are hevel. Even a human invention, discovery, or work of art only repeats what someone else created earlier; there is nothing new under the sun. And eventually people forget the so-called innovation—until someone else rediscovers it.

I have observed all the deeds done under the sun, and hey!—everything is hevel and herding the wind! (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

So much for devoting one’s life to discovering, inventing, or creating. So much for trying to improve the world through new science or new ways of government.


In a few billion years our whole solar system will die. But in the meantime, our earth has radically changed during the last two millennia. Thanks to human innovations, billions of people live longer and healthier lives, enjoy luxuries Kohelet could not have dreamed of, and acquire knowledge he would have envied.

Humans innovations have also resulted in so much pollution that the climate around the world is permanently disrupted, with grave results for all living things.

We can still celebrate our harvests and pray for the right amount of rain. We can still enjoy eating and drinking and spending our short lives with someone we love, as Kohelet suggests.4 But perhaps we can also recognize that there are new things under the sun—and our lives can be meaningful, not hevel, if we dedicate them to making changes for the good.


  1. A sukkah is modeled after the temporary hut the ancient Israelites erected in their fields during harvest season to provide a shaded place for laborers to take a drink or a meal break, as in the book of Ruth. The roof of a ritual sukkah is made out of vegetation such as reeds or branches, and must have gaps wide enough for rain to come in—and for the people inside to see stars at night.
  2. The word kohelet (קֹהֶלֶת) = assembler (from the root verb kahal (קהל) = assembly). Jewish tradition attributes the book to King Solomon, who succeeds King David in the first chapter of 1 Kings, but there is no corroborating evidence.
  3. Ecclesiastes 2:18-21.
  4. Ecclesiastes 3:22, 5:17, 9:9.

Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: Book of Life

Many Jews spend hours and hours standing together and praying for God to write their names in the “Book of Life” on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Shofar on Rosh Hashanah,blowing , Amsterdam, 1707

The term “book of life” appears only once in the Hebrew Bible, in Psalm 69:

Erase them from the seifer chayim,

                        And do not inscribe them among the righteous!  (Psalm 69:29)

seifer (סֵפֶר) = book, account written on a scroll.

chayim (חַיִּים) = [of] life, lives, living.

The psalmist is begging God to punish the enemies who have reviled and tortured him.1 Moses takes a more noble approach in a story that implies God keeps a “book of life”; after the people worship a golden calf, Moses tells God:

“And now, if [only] you will pardon their sin! But if not, please erase me from your seifer that you have inscribed.” (Exodus 32:32)

The Talmud elaborates on the metaphor of the seifer chayim by saying that on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another.  People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in a third book until Yom Kippur, ten days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.2

Gehinnom was named after the Valley of Hinnom, where Jersualem’s trash was burned

What happens to the people whose names are listed in God’s books? The account in the Talmud adds that those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked suffer in the fires of Gehinnom after death.

But the prayers for God to “inscribe us in the Book of Life” in the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy omit any reference to a possibility of life after death. 3 Instead, the Book of Life lists the names of everyone will live in the world for the next year. The individuals God does not write down will die before the year is over.

This idea motivated Jews to pray repeatedly for God to write down their names, just in case they had been omitted from the book.

One addition to the first prayer of the Amidah (the standing prayer) on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Unetaneh Tokef. 4 It features a chant with this refrain:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Tzom Kippur it is sealed.

Rosh Hashanah (רֺאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) = head of the year.

Yom Tzom Kippur (יוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר) = day of the fast of kipur (כִּפּוּר = atonement, reconciliation).

Here is one translation5 of the verses that are punctuated by that refrain:

~How many shall slip away and how many shall be created?

~Who shall live and who shall die?

~~~Who at their natural end and who before?

~~~Who by water and who by fire?

~~~Who by sword and who by wild beast?

~~~Who by hunger and who by thirst?

~~~Who by earthquake and who by plague?

~~~Who by strangling and who by stoning?

~Who shall rest and who shall roam?

~Who shall be peaceful and who shall be harried?

~Who shall be impoverished and who shall be enriched?

~Who shall sink and who shall rise?

The first two questions are directly about the “Book of Life”. How many people will die, and how many will be born? Who will still be alive in a year, and who will die during the year?

The middle six lines refer to various ways to die. Death awaits us all, but just as we do not know when it will come, we do not know how it will happen.

The last four questions are not even about life versus death; they bring up other unknowns. Even if we live the whole year, we cannot know what our lives will be like. Will something either make us settle down or uproot us? Will it be an easy year, or a year full of difficulties?

The chant concludes:

But teshuvah and tefilah and tzedakah bypass the ro-a of the decree!

teshuvah (תְשׁוּבָה) = return, repentance. (From the verb shuv, שׁוּב = turn, return, change.)

tefilah (תְפִלָּה) = prayer. (From the verb paleil, פַּלֵּל = ask God for a favorable judgment or a pardon, intercede with God on someone else’s behalf, plead with God for a miracle. In post-biblical times, prayer also came to mean praising God or expressing appreciation for God’s works.

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = good deeds, right behavior. (From the root verb tzadak (צָדַק) = was justified, was not guilty, was ethical.)

ro-a (רֺעַ) = badness, ugliness, perverseness. (Related to ra, רַע = bad, evil.)

If you repent all your misdeeds and reform, and you appreciate God’s gifts, and you act as ethically as you can, then will God inscribe your name in the Book of Life for another year? No. Good people die every year—some because of very old age, and some by disasters such as those mentioned in the Unetaneh Tokef chant.

However, death does not have to be bad, ugly, or perverse. Even if God decrees the time and the means of our deaths, we get to decide whether this fate is evil or not. Of course we can always imagine what we would do if only we could live longer. But the real question is what we have already done with our life.

Both those facing death and their survivors are comforted when they know that by the end of life there was teshuvah (anyone the person wronged received an apology or compensation or acknowledgement, whatever sort of repentance was still possible); there was tefilah (the person appreciated life, the universe, and everything); and there was tzedakah (the person did what was right).

May we all die well, when the time comes. And as the year 5783 begins,6 may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year!


  1. Psalm 69 is written in the first person singular, from the viewpoint of someone whose service to God is public (and irritating to those who reject God or God’s laws). Therefore the psalmist is probably a priest or Levite, and therefore male. However, it is possible that the narrator is a female prophet or nazir, and the pronoun in this sentence should be “her”.
  2. Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b.
  3. These prayers were added by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.
  4. Unetaneh Tokef (וּנְתַנֶּה תֺּקֶף) = And now we give (an account of) the power (of God) … (These words introduce the subsequent prayer.)
  5. (Mine.)
  6. Year 5783 in the Hebrew calendar began at sunset on September 25, 2022.

Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Doing the Right Thing

Model of Herod’s Jerusalem with temple, Israel Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

The seventh and last “haftarah of consolation” is read the week before Rosh Hashanah. Like last week’s haftarah, this week’s passage from second Isaiah celebrates a glorious future when the world will revolve around the Israelites and their God in Jerusalem.1

No doubt many Israelites were consoled by the belief that God, who had previously arranged for the Babylonians to conquer and exile them, would soon bless them again. Even today, many individuals who have suffered irreversible losses are consoled by the belief that God works in mysterious ways2 and will be good to them from now on.

I am not one of those people. But this year I found a different consolation in the seventh haftarah of consolation: the word tzedakah.

High priest, detail from bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

This week’s reading uses the word tzedakah five times, starting with:

I certainly rejoice in God!

            My soul exults in my God.

For [God] has clothed me in garments of liberation,

            Has wrapped me in a royal robe of tzedakah,

As a bridegroom puts on a turban like a priest’s

            And as a bride adorns herself with ornaments. (Isaiah 61:10)

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = right behavior, righteousness. (The root verb, tzadak (צָדַק) = was justified, judged rightly, was not guilty, was righteous, was ethical.)3

Tzedakah can mean ethical behavior in general, or it can refer to a particular arena of right behavior. In the Hebrew bible, it most often means justice. In Psalm 112 and modern Hebrew, it means helping the disadvantaged.

In verse 61:10 above, tzedakah is pictured as splendid outer garment provided by God. Perhaps the Israelites who hear that God will rescue them from Babylon find the prophesy as majestic as the robe of a priest or princess, and beautiful as a bride’s adornments.

The next verse elaborates:

For as the earth brings forth her sprouts

            And as a garden sprouts growing plants,

Thus will my lord God sow tzedakah

            And praise, in front of all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11)

All the nations on earth will witness the transformation of the exiled Israelites. Both tzedakah and praise from other nations will flourish.

What does tzedakah mean in this context? The Jewish Publication Society and some other respected translations use the English word “victory” for all five occurrences of the word tzedakah in this week’s haftarah. Translator Robert Alter explained that the primary meanings of words derived from the root verb tzadak have to do with winning a just case in court. The idea of winning came to include winning in battle4 (as long as the winning side is the right side).

The metaphor in Isaiah 60:10 is vague enough so tzedakah can be translated equally well as “victory” or “justice” or even “righteousness”. But in Isaiah 60:11, “victory” does not make sense to me. Why is tzedakah paired with praise? People may praise their own kings or gods for being victorious, but outsiders praise victors only when they need to appease them. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible praise the Babylonians for being victorious!

Furthermore, the metaphor of sprouting plants is a better fit for the growth of good deeds and justice in Jerusalem. People in other nations might well praise the people of Jerusalem for their kindness and justice. After all, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah praise the Persian emperors who replaced the Babylonians because the Persian policies are more ethical and fair to downtrodden populations like the Israelites.

Does God deserve credit for making righteousness sprout in the Israelites? Yes, according to the bible. Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel agree that God let the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem for two reasons: its citizens were unethical in their dealings with other humans, and they worshiped idols. When second Isaiah and Ezekiel prophesy the return of the exiled Israelites to Jerusalem, they say that the people will improve and God will forgive them.

Ezekiel even quotes God as saying:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put into you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your body, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit into you. And I will act [so that] you follow my decrees and my laws; you will observe and do them. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

In short, God will make the Israelites want to be ethical and follow God’s rules. This is how God  sows tzedakah in the Israelites.


The next verse of this week’s haftarah also refers to tzedakah:

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent,

            And for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be quiet,

Until her tzedakah emerges like radiance

            And her rescue burns like a torch. (Isaiah 62:1)

The “her” in “Until her tzedakah emerges like radiance” refers to Jerusalem and its natives. These Israelites will not be responsible for any victory over the Babylonians; that is up to God (who fulfills the prophecy by arranging for the Persians to take over the Babylonian Empire). Therefore “righteousness” or “justice” is a more reasonable translation than “victory” in verse 62:1.

The focus then shifts to God, Jerusalem’s rescuer, addressed as “you”.

And nations will see your tzedakah

            And all kings, your magnificence … (Isaiah 62:2)

What, exactly, will the nations and their kings observe? The Israelites might think of God’s tzedakah as “victory”, since the bible gives God credit for the Persian victory over the Babylonian Empire. But the people and kings of other nations could not be expected to give the God of Israel credit for this victory. If anything, they would attribute it to a/ Persian god; in the Ancient Near East, each god was considered responsible for the fate of its own people.

The most that kings of other nations might notice is that the change of empires allowed the homecoming of the Israelites, who (according to the previous verse) are a manifestly just and righteous people. This much could count as a good deed on the part of the God of Israel.


The fifth time this week’s haftarah uses the word tzedakah is more ambiguous. God is imagined as wearing clothes covered with blood, like a victor in battle:

Gideon and His 300, detail from bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

Who is this coming from Edom,

            In bloody clothes from Bozra?

[Who] is this, splendid in his attire,

            Striding in his abundant power?

“I am one who speaks with tzedakah,

            Abundant for rescuing.” (Isaiah 63:1)

The blood in this image does identify God as a victor in war. Nevertheless, given all the occurrences throughout the bible of tzedakah as justice or right behavior, God could be “one who speaks with justice” or “one who speaks about ethics”, and provides many rescues to carry out justice—even if some of the rescues are bloody.


The final “haftarah of consolation” is read on the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Sunday evening this year. During Rosh Hashanah services, Jews pray to be “inscribed in the Book of Life” for the next year, a theme that continues ten days later on Yom Kippur, when we beg God to forgive is for all our ethical shortcomings.

For me, this is another reason to read this week’s haftarah in terms of tzedakah as right behavior, rather than in terms of victory in war.

The idea of tzedakah also comforts and consoles me for my mother’s death. I went out of my way to do everything I could to lovingly help her this past year, despite various difficulties. Whatever other ethical shortcomings I have, I know I am not guilty in that area of life. And I thank God for the strength to do the right thing. 

I wish all of my readers a good new year, a shanah tovah of life and tzedakah—whenever the year begins for you!


  1. For more on this haftarah reading, see my post Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Power of Names.
  2. See my post Psalm 73: When Good Things Happen.
  3. In the bible, a tzadik (צַדִּיק, also from the root tzadak) is a just or ethical person. In Chassidic writings, a tzadik is a spiritual master, a man who devotes himself to Torah study in order to come close to God. The Chassidic movement within Judaism began in the 17th century, and emphasizes passionate attachment to the divine.
  4. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 2, Prophets, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019, p. 776, footnote on 45:25.
  5. The founder of the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, established policies allowing former exiles to return to their homes, allowing the people in each province to rebuild the shrines and temples of their own religions, and instituting limited self-government in provinces—including the province of Judea.